Black backgrounds can be pretty practical for photographers. They work great for portraits, food, product, and macro photography— just to mention a few examples. And depending on how you use them, they can add a touch of drama, mystery, elegance, and much more.
However, I’m not here to tell you which black backdrop you should buy on Amazon. Instead, I want to show you how you can create a beautiful, deep, involving black background using your best weapon as a photographer: light.
There are different ways to make a black background by playing with artificial and natural light, even in the daytime or outdoors. The trick is to learn how to adjust your camera settings and work with what you have at hand.
So, in this article, I’ll share with you 10 ways to create a black background for photography and make your subjects stand out.
But first, let’s talk about some key things you should know to get the results you want.
Table of Contents
10 Ways to Create a Black Background for Photography
1. Use a black backdrop
Yes, I know this sounds obvious, but not all black surfaces offer the same results. If you want the darkest black, you need to consider the material of the backdrop.
One of the best materials to achieve a beautiful black background for your photos is velvet since it absorbs the light pretty well.
Alternatively, if you like getting crafty, you can paint an MDF board with black or dark grey matte paint.
Regardless of the type of backdrop you use, be sure that the material has no reflective properties. Some paper backdrops might have a slightly shiny surface, so try to check all these details before shooting.
2. Use the spot metering mode
The spot metering mode will allow you to measure the light on your subject without considering other elements in the frame.
However, the spot metering mode only focuses on a small dot at the center of the frame, representing less than 5% of the surface. That ensures you get a properly lit subject in high-contrast scenes.
3. Light only your subject
As I mentioned before, if you light only on your subject and leave the rest of the picture in the dark, you will get a black background without needing a backdrop.
You can try with a lateral light or a Rembrandt lighting scheme at an angle that doesn’t reach the background.
Since this method requires more control over the light, it’s perfect for indoor environments where you can use (or block) window light or artificial light sources. Yet, you can get exceptional results with a flash in any situation, whether indoors or outdoors at day.
4. Use flags to control the amount of light
Black flags are your best friends when trying to get a dark shot. As they block light, they help you control the amount and direction of light while creating more contrast for dramatic and moody scenes.
You can use a black paperboard or foam board if you don’t have a professional studio flag. Black fabrics can also do the trick— and they are great for covering windows or large white areas that can reflect light.
5. Use a light meter
To get serious about studio photography, you should invest in a good light meter. This tool is essential for professionals who like to use flash or various light sources simultaneously. Moreover, it’s pretty practical to light your subject accurately.
An external light meter measures incident light, giving you an accurate exposure value for the light hitting your subject.
On the contrary, an in-camera light meter measures reflective light, which is the light that your subject —and the rest of the elements in the scene— is bouncing. In other words, it’s a ‘modified’ light.
It is always best to measure incident light to have more control and avoid unwanted over- or under-exposure because of what the camera reads. Plus, it’s the fastest way to measure light when using a flash.
6. Use an external flash
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: an external flash is the best way to create a black background in any —seriously any— environment.
Since the flash fires a potent light, it is easy to underexpose the background and isolate the subject, both indoors and outdoors. It works almost like magic.
To achieve that, you should underexpose the image so much that you get a black frame when you shoot a photo. Then, illuminate your subject by placing the flash at an angle where the light does not affect the background.
Ta-da! You now get a perfectly exposed subject with an invisible black background.
I can’t give you the exact values to do this trick because that will depend on every case. But, generally speaking, it all comes down to setting the lowest ISO your camera supports, a narrow aperture, and a short exposure time.
However, when you use flash, you need to consider the flash sync speed, which is the maximum shutter speed you can set on your camera to sync with a flash. Usually, that value is 1/200 or 1/250, but it depends on every camera.
That means your exposure time should be 1/200 or below, which is not fast enough to ensure a dark frame. So, to compensate for that, you can use a high-speed sync flash or simply close the aperture to the maximum.
If you need help understanding flash sync speed and high-speed sync flash, look at this video by SLR Lounge:
This flash technique can give you beautiful results, and the best part is that you can do it with a Speedlight! There is no need to spend hundreds of dollars on expensive equipment; a simple, beginner-friendly Speedlight will fit the bill if you are just starting.
7. Use a small source of light
A small light source focused directly on the subject will help you get more contrast while isolating the subject.
You can use a lamp or a flash with a snoot to avoid the light spreading all over the place. Additionally, feel free to use flags or any other light modifiers you prefer to control the amount and focus of light.
Moreover, you can also work with window light. You can just cover a part of the window, create a stencil, or play with blinds or curtains to create interesting lines, shapes, and shadows on your subject.
8. Look for shadowy areas around
If you are shooting outdoors and don’t have control over the lighting, look for shadowy areas to create high-contrast scenes and get a black background.
To do this, you must place your subject in the light in front of a dark area. For example, in a doorway or a tunnel with a dark interior.
There are thousands of dark zones in your day-to-day life that can do the trick for this technique. You just need to keep your eyes wide open and be creative.
9. Blacken the background in post-processing
If you cannot achieve a plain black background in-camera but a gray one, you can always adjust the shadows using Lightroom or Photoshop.
To darken the background quickly and easily, you can dim the shadows in Lightroom or play with curves and levels in Photoshop. That will instantly create more contrast and intensify blacks without affecting the whites and highlights.
In addition, you can use adjustment brushes to retouch specific areas, add more contrast, or boost the highlights on your subject to make it stand out more.
10. Add an artificial black background in Photoshop
I’m not a big fan of this option because it’s the easy way out that doesn’t involve experimentation. I would always recommend trying to get the darkest background possible directly from the camera before opening Photoshop.
Still, I wanted to include it because sometimes we want to see an image with a black background after we’ve already taken the shot, so it’s nice to have Photoshop’s help for these cases.
To get a good result, have a non-destructive workflow and work with separate layers so you don’t affect the original image.
If you want the easiest way to get a black background, I’ll leave this video showing a simple method for beginners:
Notice how he retouched and darkened the edges to blend with the background and create a more ‘organic’ feel. Always pay attention to these details! Otherwise, you could end up with a result that looks too fake and unconvincing.
Using Lighting for Black Background Photography
The most crucial aspect to consider is lighting. Believe it or not, you can achieve a black background in an outdoor environment during the day or even transform a white wall into a dark background. And no, I’m not talking about any Photoshop tricks.
So, how do you do that?
In simple words, all you have to do is light only your subject and block that light from reaching the background. That way, your camera will capture a well-lit subject and leave the rest in complete darkness, even in daylight.
Remember that cameras can’t see the world as our eyes do, particularly in high-contrast situations. That is because camera sensors have a limited dynamic range, meaning they cannot capture all the details in the brightest and darkest areas of a scene.
For example, try taking a picture of a room with an open window at the back at midday. If you measure the light inside, the window in the background will come out totally white, while if you measure the light on the window to show the landscape, the interior will be underexposed.
With this, I want you to start considering the dynamic range of your camera from now on and start seeing how your camera would see. Of course, every camera is different, so you should take some time to experiment with it.
Once you understand how light works in your camera, you can create black backgrounds with a flash, a lamp, or a window— I love playing with light beams coming through my window because they create contrast and beautiful lines to work with!
Nevertheless, there are a few aspects to keep in mind:
1. Use manual mode and select the spot metering mode on your camera to ensure you get complete control over your image settings.
Sometimes, even with a piece of black fabric, you won’t get a dark, pure black background, and that might be because of a poor metering method or improper lighting. That’s why you should work in full manual mode and use spot metering to light your main subject without considering the background.
2. Make sure the lighting is not frontal so it doesn’t brighten the background.
3. Separate the subject from the background as much as possible, especially if you can move your light source and keep it close to your subject.
4. Create high-contrast scenes so it can be easier to darken the background. You can do that by making the light source smaller (probably using grids or snoots if you have an external flash) or putting your subject closer to the light so it doesn’t spread all over the frame.
You must control the amount of light with great care to avoid unpleasant reflections. Feel free to use flags to add a negative fill to create more contrast and make the scene darker.
5. Use an external flash. That is the best way to create a black background in any environment, even if it’s a Speedlight— more on that later.
I know flash photography seems daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll start having a lot of fun. So, don’t fear the flash!
Black backgrounds look great in many photography styles. I love them particularly for portraits and product photography because they create an exquisite, luxurious look and highlight the subject like never before.
And now, you know you don’t need a black backdrop for that!
I hope you found this article helpful. If you want to learn more about photography techniques and equipment, check our photography articles to get started.
Nate Torres is a portrait photographer servicing the Orange County and Los Angeles areas. He specializes in portraits of individuals, couples, groups and headshots. Nate Torres is also a photography writer and content creator and educates other photographers on portrait photography, composition, editing, gear, and business. You can find his content on his personal website, social media, and YouTube Channel, as well as on blogs such as Fstoppers, Photofocus, and Imaginated. Being a former SEO consultant, Nate also teaches other photographers how to use SEO to grow their own photography business on his educational blog, Shutter SEO.